Who knew that such a world could exist, one where sound becomes the antagonist of life and all its beauty — the antithesis of peace and harmony? No one would believe it, but hyperacusis is real. This world can be loud, harmful; hurt our precious hearing. But many, unaware of that, will never know that wretched truth until disaster slithers in — a stealthy serpent of destruction, hissing in the soundscape. Those who live and thrive with sound — inviting it from every angle — are even more at risk. However, that is not to discount the instances where noise is forced upon us by others unsuspectingly.
We will examine these two situations separately in this 2-part article. This week, we’ll look at the noises we voluntarily expose ourselves to.
Inviting the Noise
Children are particularly at risk. Their smaller ear canals generate greater sound pressure. This means loud sounds are actually louder for them, increasing their susceptibility to damage (“How to Protect Baby’s Hearing?” babyhearing.org). Kids often cling to the lively essence of sound and never question it. Noise can deceive them; present itself as fun and beauty, exciting all the senses. That way of life subdues them or makes their worlds whole, but not without those real threats that linger in the shadows.
Earbuds are a cherished tool that foster entertainment — music as a fun outlet. When children crank them up, though, as many sadly do, it’s common for that instrument to reach 100 decibels (“If It Sounds Too Loud, It Is Too Loud. Hearing Health Foundation, 2023). That, with time, can hurt their hearing and pave the way for many problems: hearing loss, tinnitus, a form of hyperacusis, and more.
Sitting in the ear itself, the buds are just too dangerous, their distance like a hostile force that leaves no room for mercy. When sound is flowing through the ears with nowhere else to go but in, the speakers can wreak havoc, increasing the sound level by 6 to 9 dB. The sound waves, taxing and persistent, are just too much for the auditory system (“Earbuds.” TeensHealth, 2021).
Even when earbuds or headphones are advertised as volume-limiting, there’s inherent danger. The majority of these devices put a volume cap at 85 dB. The human ear is not designed to listen to sounds above 70 dB for extended periods. The World Health Organization recommends only one hour daily of exposure to 85 dB of constant noise (“Loud Noise Can Cause Hearing Loss.” cdc.gov). When unchecked, children could easily exceed that limit.
A compounding issue is the lack of quality control by manufacturers. Researchers — when testing 50 different models of headphones that claim to limit volume to 85 dB — found that half of them didn’t meet the standard, exceeding the mark variably (Longman, James. “Are Volume-Limiting Headphones Safe for Your Child?” audioreputation.com, 2022).
Motorcycles are an enticing mode of travel. The allure of freedom on the open road and oneness between man and machine draws people in. Many are aware of the risks associated with these vehicles: decreased visibility, lower stability, higher likelihood of serious injury, or death (“Motorcycles.” iihs.org). However, they may be surprised to learn that motorcycles are a serious hearing hazard.
Motorcycles are sonorous — many rev to levels over 100 dB. Not only that, the exposure to wind noise a rider faces is just as threatening. Without hearing protection, 1 hour of riding at freeway speeds can cause irreversible hearing damage. As speed increases, the timeframe for damage substantially decreases. Surprisingly, helmets do very little to protect a rider’s hearing, only reducing the noise exposure by 3 to 5 dB. Adding earplugs can augment this reduction by as much as 35 dB (“Motorcycles Hazardous to Your Hearing.” hear-it.org).
Going to the movies can be magical. The smell of popcorn that permeates, the concessions and their excess serving sizes, and the camaraderie of the audience all make it a captivating experience. The unseen menace that is loud noise lurks until the lights dim.
Theaters have volume levels comparable to motorcycles, ranging from 74 to 104 dB over the course of the movie. With the level of fluctuation that can occur, it’s hard to gauge the danger for hearing damage over the duration of the movie. Musicians earplugs are a good choice in this instance, as they focus on preserving sound quality, while still offering a fairly decent amount of protection. An alternative choice is seeking out theaters that offer sensory-friendly screenings, which have lower volume levels (“Seeing Just One Movie in the Theater Could Damage Your Hearing.” news.northeastern.edu).
Sporting events are a beloved pastime for people of all ages. Everyone loves to support their favorite teams, immersed in the atmosphere of loyalty and fun. Unfortunately, the cheering section can get painfully loud and become problematic.
Fans of the Seattle Seahawks, who pride themselves on their roistering, have the loudest stadium in the NFL, officially recorded by Guinness World Records as peaking at 137.6 dB! Sound at that level causes instant damage. A study found that a single NHL playoff game exposed spectators to noise levels equivalent to running a chainsaw for 3 hours! Earplugs or muffs are a must for these levels of exposure (“Noise at Pro Sports Games Can Cause Long-term Hearing Loss.” cbc.ca, 2014).
Click here to read the second part of this article.